Dennis Hickey waited 18 years for this. Now, as the countdown clock to unrestricted free agency is running inexorably toward Monday’s zero hour, Hickey finally has a chance to put his stamp on his team’s offseason.
So all the Dolphins new general manager has to do to be successful is rebuild an offensive line, fix a broken run defense, make the pass defense less inviting to quarterbacks, set the team up for draft-day flexibility, and do it all without blowing up Miami’s advantageous salary-cap standing.
For the Dolphins and Hickey, free agency’s most important work now that cornerback Brent Grimes has re-signed will be done along the offensive line.
The Dolphins must build the unit that basically destroyed the 2013 season.
From one side to the other, tackle to tackle, the Dolphins have issues on the offensive line in that they must find players to replace the four starters who are unsigned and unlikely to return.
And if you think Hickey gets a reprieve from the center spot where Pro Bowl player Mike Pouncey offers stability and certainty, consider that Pouncey wants a contract extension even as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell weighs possible sanctions on him and others involved in last season’s harassment scandal.
The Dolphins are dead last in the NFL in offensive line spending right now. They currently spend only 16.6 percent of their $52.9 million offense payroll on the offensive line. That will change significantly within the next two weeks.
The Dolphins will be looking for at least one and possibly as many as three offensive linemen in free agency — and the left tackle spot will be the priority.
The names on the Dolphins radar are Eugene Monroe, Branden Albert, and possibly Anthony Collins.
None of the three players is certain to become free agents because their have until Saturday to sign them before other teams can join in negotiations for their services. But Monroe, for example, had no contract talks with Baltimore on Tuesday and the sides are not close.
So the Dolphins hold their breath.
If the three are available, it’s clear Monroe is Miami’s first choice. He has played 76 of a possible 79 games since 2009 so he’s durable. He’s also the best pass blocker of the group. But last season Monroe was only average as a run-blocker. Baltimore was 30th in the NFL running the football and, yes, he was part of the problem.
Monroe is good but not yet elite. So paying him $11.5 million to $12 million per season suggests overpaying. That’s elite tackle money.
Top 10 tackle money has been in the $8 million to $9 million range per season but that might be going up this free agency period. So if the Dolphins can get Monroe for somewhere between $9 million to $11 million per season, they should be pleased.
Of course, with the salary cap rising to $133 million, agents are expecting their contract hauls to be delivered by Brinks trucks.
That’s why the Dolphins likely have contingencies involving Albert and Collins. Albert would love to play for the Dolphins because, as he’s said, he loves the “Trey o Five.”
The problem is Albert also loves the idea of being the NFL’s highest-paid tackle. Collins is less accomplished but had a fine ’13 season. He also is a better pass-blocker than run blocker. His salary ceiling will be anywhere from $6 million to $8 million per season.
Hickey must solve a difficult issue in that two outstanding defensive tackles — Randy Starks and Paul Soliai — played well in 2013 and want to be paid like it to re-sign while highly paid linebackers Phillip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe are already paid well but didn’t necessarily play like it.
So to improve a run defense that ranked a disappointing 24th, Hickey must decide how to continue getting good play from the tackle spot without overpaying while getting better play from his linebackers while perhaps paying less.
(On that front, the Dolphins hosted free agent inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson on Tuesday and Ellerbe and Wheeler should take note because Miami’s interest could be an omen — perhaps a position change for Ellerbe to outside linebacker and an address change for Wheeler out of town.)
Starks and Soliai both expect to test free agency. The Dolphins have not offered either a contract, but both players’ agents are confident the market will bring big offers. That means both expect their annual salaries to hit or top $7 million per season, and that means the Dolphins likely cannot afford to bring both back.
Signing Grimes was an accomplishment by Hickey. But what it ultimately means is the Dolphins aren’t losing ground at that position.
More must be done because Miami’s third-down (passing down) defense has gotten progressively worse the past two seasons.
Under former coach Tony Sparano in 2011 — a season that was an utter failure because the team’s record was 6-10 and Sparano got fired — the Dolphins allowed opponents to convert 33.8 percent of their third-down plays.
Third-and-long (10 yards or more) was a disastrous down for opponents, who converted only eight of 65 tries. The Dolphins ranked No. 7 in the NFL in that big-down category.
Then last season Miami opponents converted 38.2 percent of their third-down plays and, as a result, the defense dropped to No. 17 in the category.
The Dolphins want to go in the other direction, and that means improving at safety where Chris Clemons is a free agent and the other cornerback spot, where Nolan Carroll is also a free agent.
Both players expect to test free agency. And, meanwhile, the Dolphins are going to consider upgrades.
Monday is coming.